“Since the pandemic, I thought about who I wanted to spend time with and, to be honest, who I’d risk catching coronavirus from—she popped into my head.”
Before coronavirus, dating, depending on community and culture, had an expected and accepted timing and rhythm. New relationships followed a series of prescribed milestones that created comfort and led participants to the “define the relationship” conversation. Under that order, partners in established relationships who had not taken the leap of moving in could still expect to be within six feet of each other on a regular basis. Now, coronavirus has overturned innumerable institutions, so why not add relationships to the list?
Many aspects of American dating culture baffle me. Throw in apps like Tinder and Hinge and my eyes glaze over. However, the impact of coronavirus on dating is an intriguing one: will people on the razor’s edge of coupledom accelerate the process and go straight to roommate status? Will coronavirus prove a breaking point for new and established couples? Or will dating slow down, like the rest of life these days, with couples focusing on each other and not the distractions of modern life? In other words, has coronavirus brought courting back into relationships? After speaking to a number of people, it seems that courtship, a practice I thought was extinct in America, is making a comeback.
Ollie Costolloe and his girlfriend Allison are seniors at UMass and had been dating exclusively for one year before coronavirus closed their school and forced both to move home with their parents. Unlike some of their peers, Ollie and Allison took the pandemic seriously and immediately started social distancing from everyone.
“We used to see each other all the time, normally spend our weekends together,” Ollie says of his relationship. “But we trust each other. We speak every day and send each other Snapchat photos and messages. It helps that we were friends before we started dating exclusively. But yeah, this situation is getting stale.”
After five weeks of self-isolating from everyone but their families, Ollie and Allison figured they were healthy and went on their first date in almost two months: a long walk in the woods. Quite a change of pace for college seniors.
Unlike Ollie and Allison, Sharon Brandy and her partner Mel (names changed for story) had just decided to be exclusive when coronavirus put their relationship to the test. Sharon, a 28-year-old post-doc student at Boston University, met Mel in January at a biotech conference.
“We instantly clicked—within a month, we were having the Are we exclusive or not? conversation, and that was before coronavirus,” Mel says. Coronavirus and its lethality forced an honest heart-to-heart conversation and three weeks after going exclusive, Sharon moved home to Providence.
“I have lupus and am high-risk,” Sharon says. “Mel and I had a serious talk and discussed moving in together, the real possibility of me contracting corona and what me being sick would do to us. We decided not to pressure our relationship—with so much changing, the last thing we both needed was to warp speed our relationship.”
They’re hardly on hold: Mel and Sharon speak twice a day, and have a weekly “Zoom date night.” Two weeks ago, Sharon thought she may have been exposed to coronavirus and immediately called Mel. After testing negative and arriving home, Sharon’s mom took her to the backyard, where Mel was waiting with flowers, balloons, and a picnic basket.
“When Sharon said she may have the virus, I just jumped in my car. In my mind, it didn’t matter if she was sick or not, I just wanted to be there for her.” Asked about the date prep materials, Mel laughs. “I figured if the test were positive, she would definitely need flowers, balloons, and yummy food. If it were negative, we had to celebrate.” Conscious of Sharon’s health, their picnic date was socially distanced, with each sitting on a separate blanket.
For all its questionable impacts on personal relationships, social media is helping some relationships stay afloat. In February, Nora Huntley, who works for a marketing firm in Boston, met Mark at a neighborhood party. They had a great time and went out the following weekend on their first date. When the coronavirus hit, they decided to keep seeing each other and de facto became exclusive.
“It’s really not something we had an official talk about, it just happened,” Nora says. “We were not exclusive before corona happened and had only had five dates; both of us were seeing other people. I guess this situation makes you realize who you really want to spend energy on.”
They both felt the same way. And are relying heavily on social media, and a dog, to stay connected: Mark works at Brigham and Women’s Hospital as an emergency room nurse and has been separating from everyone. Early on in the pandemic, he asked Nora to watch his dog, Milo, until the crisis was over.
“We didn’t know if dogs could catch corona,” Nora says. “Mark would have been heartbroken if he caught the virus and gave it to Milo.” Every morning, before Mark leaves for work, the couple have a coffee and breakfast Skype call with Milo. And they always speak before bed—Mark likes to read to Milo.
“It’s weird but cute,” Nora says. Aware of how stressful Mark’s work is, Nora sends pictures of her and the dog throughout the day. “What did people do before Snapchat?” Nora jokes. “Mark never has time to talk during the day and his work is super exhausting now. Plus, he’s totally isolated. A photo of Milo and me hanging and smiling makes him happy.”
For Elon, social media is helping him stay connected with Sophie, a longtime school friend (both names were changed for story), but the objective is in-person meetings.
“Before corona, we were great friends and hung out when we could,” Elon says. “Since the pandemic, I thought about who I wanted to spend time with and, to be honest, who I’d risk catching coronavirus from—she popped into my head.”
While both have been self-isolating from everyone, Elon finds himself grappling with coronavirus dating etiquette: to social distance, or not to social distance.
“I don’t know what she is comfortable with or really how to bring up the conversation,” he says. “It’s difficult—I respect her boundaries and need to know them. Normally, though, we wouldn’t need to talk about these things.”
It’s an odd conversation to have anytime. The slowed pace of life has forced Elon to fall into courtship practices—he intends to take Sophie on a “quarantine-walk” that offers one of the best views of Boston. “Just to take her someplace nice, to get away from all the craziness.”
While coronavirus has brought chaos and mayhem, it has forced Americans to slow down, take a pause and do less. As a consequence, our relationships to people, activities, and places come into closer focus—the often glossed-over details are no longer lost to the noise of distraction. Maybe, just maybe this is a silver lining in this pandemic.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project.
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Ariela Shapiro is a professional writer, freelance journalist and consults for international development organizations and companies. She has lived and worked in Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Republic of Georgia, Turkey and Ukraine and reported on foreign policy, socio-political instability and security studies. She is grateful to be joining the BINJ team for report on the 2020 Manchester Primaries.